Thursday, August 7, 2008

Art and The Abject

The world of art is in trouble again, this time not because of paedophilia and child abuse, but because one of the judges on the Blake Prize panel, which is a prize for religious art, resigned after the executive officer changed the verdict and made a work by Adam Cullen the first prize. I actually agree with most of what the aggrieved judge, Christopher Allen had to say about the matter. Cullen's work is indeed kinda boring, a cheap thrills piece that says next to nothing about religion. Which is probably the idea, postmodern and cool and all. As Cullen so sensitively put it, "it's just a Jew on a cross". Yea. Of course. It's just a Jew. On a cross. How Cullen manages to somehow magically, eerily and totally evade 2000 years of history is beyond me. But, anyway, fair enough, crucifixes are everywhere and they are kinda dull and to make Cullen's work, which comes across as a not very inspiring caricature of the crucifixion the winner seems to work, in appropriately postmodern fashion, without any rationale whatsoever. Ho hum.
What is interesting though are the general questions about aesthetics the two duellers raise. One reason Allen quit is because he believes that art should be moving. Actually, inspiring, rich, enduring and suggestive are the adjectives he uses. This is interesting because we haven't heard those kinds of things in the field of aesthetics for a long time. Allen obviously believes that religious art should be, well, religious. In tone at least. Like, reverential. Cullen on the other hand is even more hopelessly idealistic, cynic that he wants us to believe he is. He give his game away when he says, "you know, you take up art where language fails you." Yes, quite. Very Nietzchean indeed. But hang on Cullen, if you then want us to take your crucifixion piece seriously on that level then I can only conclude that you are on a level of abject despair and hopelessness that is no longer interesting but has become nothing but tired pastiche. Jew on a cross indeed. But a Jew who had words to speak at least. Better words than your kinda teenage rebellious slogan "Only woman bleed". I mean Alice Cooper? Come on, if you wanna be so pop at least reference something cool.

Aesthetics is neither about religious fervour or empty idealism. Aesthetics is about the contradiction between what we want the world to be and what actually punches us in our guts. To this extent I am totally on Allen's side. Cullen's work doesn't even wink at you, let alone punch you in the guts. I mean compare Cullen to a real pusher of boundaries, Dali's crucifixion and you'll get the point, I'm sure:


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